Words, problems and difficulties

There’s an old joke that the definition of a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing.

Another one defines diplomats as those who can always make themselves misunderstood.

We definitely get the joke. There’s a lot of truth in that stereotype. But I think it comes at a cost.

In this line of work it’s often necessary to be reticent, like when we’re asked about information that could be valuable to people who want to do harm. But, generally speaking, I think we diplomats need to try harder to make our voices heard, as I’ve mentioned before.

I think we pay a price when we don’t actively engage in the discussion about the hard subjects that arise in global politics. We live in times of overwhelming information and general complexity so the process of explaining and sorting fact from fiction is as important as ever.

For the same reasons there’s also a need to be as precise as possible. Taking care to communicate with nuance and proper context makes a big difference in how we understand the issues at hand.

I was reminded of this recently when I was at a gathering of US journalists working here in the UK. We were discussing some of the tougher global issues, including Syria, and somebody asked, “So, what’s the solution?”

It’s a question we hear all the time. But as I thought about it I was reminded of my grandfather Jacques Barzun, a teacher, historian, and cultural critic, who passed away a little over a year ago just shy of his 105th birthday. He had a helpful language distinction for exactly this case.

He would make the point that asking for a “solution” implies that the issue is a “problem,” which really isn’t the right word when talking about human affairs. Problems are for mathematicians and engineers. Problems are things that can be solved with formulae and the scientific method.

Instead, he proposed a different term: “difficulty.” Difficulties are hard things in the workaday realm of humanity. Difficulties can’t be “solved” per se. Difficulties can only be met or mitigated. (It’s important to note that he didn’t use the word as it often is these days to mean something of only moderate hardship as in “mere difficulty.” The term applied to the thorniest of human issues.)

My grandfather was concerned about what’s known as scientism, which could be described as the application of the scientific method to the difficulties of human affairs. Science has obviously improved the world immeasurably and the scientific method is the right tool when it comes to launching rockets, mapping the genome, and developing apps. But when it comes to the world of humanity and culture, with its variety and swirl of thoughts and feelings, it not only doesn’t help but it can do damage.

Those in the US and UK who are at work every day dealing with our difficulties of democracy would certainly attest to the fact that it hasn’t been “solved.” After all, the US government shutdown was only three months ago. Instead, we try to meet the difficulties of democracy with systems and customs and laws that deal with the hopes and fears of people as they are in real life.

Take any difficult situation on the globe. It’s hard enough getting the right people to the table at the right time and in the right frame of mind to make the kinds of real-world compromises that end conflict and save lives. We shouldn’t add to their burden a requirement for “solutions,” or the idea that improvement only comes with the kind of precision you find in a lab.